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  • Thousands of fish were killed when toxic substances were spilled into Guatemala

    Thousands of fish were killed when toxic substances were spilled into Guatemala's La Pasion river. | Photo: Elmer Ponce – Noticias FGER

Published 26 December 2015

The Spanish African palm oil company Repsa is accused of contaminating the La Pasion river, killing thousands of fish and impacting over 22,000 residents.

A Guatemalan regional appellate court has upheld a ruling against the Spanish company Reforestadora De Palma Del Peten S.A., or Repsa, which is accused of “ecocide” for contaminating the La Pasion river in the northern department of Peten.

In its decision, the court rejected an appeal presented by a small group of residents, who were looking to overturn a decision issued against Repsa on Sept. 17 for contaminating the river and affecting over 22,000 people.

In September, Judge Carla Hernandez, from the Peten Environmental Crimes Court, ordered the company to temporarily suspend operations for six months as a preventive measure, while the Public Ministry collects more evidence.

Nevertheless, according to a report from the Guatemalan newspaper La Hora, the company had still continued operations, at least as of late November.

The case against Repsa was formally opened on June 11, when a dozen collectives and public entities gathered under the Commission for the Defense of Life and Nature filed a lawsuit against the company after thousands of dead fish surfaced in northern Guatemala near the border with Mexico, leading authorities to investigate what they have called an “ecocide.”

In the end of April, communities first saw a wave of fish deaths. According to an investigation on the case by the Guatemala Indymedia Center, the deaths came after basins of insecticides used by Repsa to treat their plants overflowed due to heavy rains. According to Rosalito Barrios, with the University of San Carlos de Guatemala's Chemical Sciences Department, various substances and oils formed a 70-centimeter layer over the river's surface, causing the organisms living underneath to asphyxiate and die, the reason why activists, authorities and academics have called this an “ecocide.”

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The commission accused Repsa of spilling toxic substances into the river, and causing the death of the fish and other species. The disaster also heavily impacted the numerous communities in the municipality of Sayaxche that live near the river. Fishing was their main source of income and food, and the contamination of the river has hindered their ability to use the water for drinking and personal hygiene.

“We can call the case a crime against humanity, because not only were various species of the river are dying, but the river is also part of our historical culture, of our territory,” community leader Saul Paau told the Guatemala Indymedia Center. ”We get our food from it, and the contamination and the fish deaths today have violated the food security of all of us.”

The population also began to show symptoms of intoxication, such as skin welts, fever, headaches, nausea and diarrhea.

However, Repsa has denied responsibility for the contamination and the fish deaths, and it has even encouraged social conflicts between the palm oil workers and the rest of the community. One of the first leaders to document and alert about the “ecocide,” Rigoberto Lima, was assassinated. A Sayaxche city council member, who, with others, filed the lawsuit against Repsa, was shot twice by two armed men on a motorcycle the day after the September ruling against Repsa.

On the same day the council member was shot, a hundred Repsa employees went to the regional court to express their disagreement with the ruling, for taking away their jobs.

The National Council of Displaced in Guatemala accused Repsa executives of having encouraged their employees to demonstrate this day, to block the road between Sayaxche and Coban and to detain three of their members for 12 hours.

According to Guatemala's National Council for Protected Areas, the contamination has affected 23 species of fish and 21 other species of animal life, including birds, reptiles, and mammals. In July, the U.N. coordinator in Guatemala urged authorities to investigate the environmental and social disaster, saying that between 2.5 and 3.75 tons of industrial waste were generated by each ton of a palm oil produced.

The production of African oil palm is a chemically intensive crop grown as a monoculture, which requires a heavy use of an industrial pesticide called Malathion.

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